Damned with machista praise

From an essay by José Carlos Mariátegui – cited by Daisy Zamora in the intro to her anthology, La mujer nicaragüense en la poesía:

“Los versos de las poetisas generalmente no son versos de mujer. No se siente en ellos sentimiento de hembra. Las poetisas no hablan como mujeres. Son, en su poesía, seres neutros. Son artistas sin sexo. La poesía de la mujer está dominada por un pudor estúpido. Y carece por esta razón de humanidad y de fuerza. Mientras el poeta muestra su “yo”, la poetisa esconde y mistifica el suyo. Envuelve su alma, su vida, su verdad, en las grotescas túnicas de lo convencional” (Zamora 22).

“The verses of poetesses generally aren’t women’s verses. One doesn’t sense in them any female feeling. The women poets don’t talk like women. They are, in their poetry, neuter beings. They’re artists without sex. The poetry of women is dominated by an idiotic modesty. And that’s why they lack in humanity and power. While the male poet displays his “I”, the poetess hides and mystifies herself. She wraps up her soul, her life, her truth, in the grotesque tunics of the conventional.” [translation by Liz Henry]

I don’t know the year that Mariátegui wrote this essay, but most likely sometime in the 1920s. It’s fascinating to contrast his criticism of women with that of other (male) critics who run off at the mouth about the oversexed women poets who go too far with their passion and who can’t seem to write about anything important, anything other than love. I had just been writing about him in conjunction with Magda Portal, María Wiesse, Angela Ramos, Alicia del Prado, and other women who were publishing in Amauta, a Peruvian magazine. He was the only man mentioned in conjunction with these very political, activist women, and I wondered if he had some interesting take on feminism. Well, he sure sounds jerky in that one excerpt, kind of like he wants a free show from these un-neuter women who boldly strip themselves of their tunics…

Last week I translated Magda Portal’s poem “Liberación”. And check out these lines:

Un día seré libre… Seré libre presiento,
con una gran sonrisa a flor de corazón,
con una gran sonrisa como no tengo hoy.
Y ya no habrá la sombra de mi remordimiento,
el cobarde silencio que merma mi Emoción.
Un día habré logrado la verdad de mi Yo!

One day I’ll be free… I’ll be free, I know it,
with a huge smile that flowers from the heart,
with a huge smile that I don’t have today.
And then I won’t have the ghost of my shame,
the coward silence that tamps down Emotion.
Someday I’ll have achieved the truth of my Self!
[forgive the translation… a crude first draft.]

Wow! That just can’t be a coincidence. It sounds like she wrote it in response to Mariátegui. A little bit of poking around on the web and I found this fascinating essay by him all about Portal’s poetry, comparing her to Agustini, Ibarbourou, and others: 7 Ensayos de Interpretación de la Realidad Peruana, from 1928. Mari&ategui has a huge crush!

I find it annoying how he says her work isn’t “descended” from any other women — as if feminist geneologies would demean the work or the poet, and as if she sprung up out of nowhere and as if no other woman anywhere were writing like that. Praise becomes isolation; isolation becomes tokenization. I understand that his motivations were partly nationalist, but from my perspective, I see every introduction to women’s work from this era saying “How come this woman poet has no equal, no precursor? Where did she come from? ” as having a subtext of assigning freakishness to women writers.

But then, the more I look, the more I find that these women writers often were surrounded by other writing women. They’re not left out because they’re trivial; they’re left out because non-triviality is defined to be male.

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Anthologizing; standards of selection

I’ve been working on my anthology project for over a year. It’s of poems by Latin American women writers – well, Spanish America – and is focused on work published between 1880 and 1930. My goal is to give a fair representation of what was being published by women in that era. I’ve done a lot of research! And I could spend years expanding this project; it’s fascinating and there is a ton of material. To do this project right, I would need to go spend a couple of months in various big libraries. I’d like to visit the Benson Latin American collection in Austin; I’m familiar with it because I used to work in that library system. I’d like to go to big libraries in Buenos Aires and Uruguay and Cuba and Guatemala, to look at copies of women’s magazines and other literary magazines from the turn of the century.

For now, I have quite a lot to work with. I have good work from about 40 or 50 poets, and many more I haven’t yet been able to judge. I’ve translated a smaller core group of 21 poets, made short bios for them, and compiled lists of their work, where I could find that information. Most of these poets are not well known. You have your famous ones in roughly this order:

– Gabriela Mistral (Won the Nobel Prize)
– Delmira Agustini
– Alejandra Storni

I’d say that’s it for the “known” writers that you would expect from an academic who is a latin americanist, or is from Latin America. Storni, especially, was hip recently. And a few poets in the U.S. will have read selected translations of Mistral. Usually the dippiest and stupidest of her poems.

Beyond that, people seem to know Juana de Ibarbourou; Salome Ureña, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda. Correct me if I’m wrong! The other writers are either little-known even to most literary people, or they’re known (or known of) by people from their own countries. This is not surprising; academia rewards specialization. People tend to become experts in a particular time, place or “literary movement”; even so narrow as to study a particular writer. The mindset of the ambitious anthologist must be quite different.

I find most of my “unknown” women poets only in anthologies that are country-specific, and often only in old anthologies from 1930. There is a certain sentimentality attached to them, as they might have been poems memorized in grade school for recitation…. again, the poems best known are not the best poems.

So what do I mean by “the best poems”? On some level, I have an absolute artistic standard, a very traditional “golden bookshelf” one, that I’m judging by. It’s elitist and snobby. I like density of language and meaning, a “leaping” quality, and intertextuality. I like a surprise. I value poems that are exciting to me as a poet – and value them over poems that might be more exciting to a general audience. This kind of discernment is good to have, but it can also be a liability or an obstacle to interpretive vision and judgement; it can be blatantly classist; it’s like wearing blinders. Steeping myself in non-elite traditions gives me other standards to judge by; like with literary genre, you can’t judge one sort of thing by the standards of another. In other words, I believe that literary critics, anthologizers, and teachers have to get over that sense, or not be limited by it.

On another level, I want to find “what’s interesting to people now” including anything that I think will be unexpected. If I see (and I do) that “latin american women’s writing” is being marketed in the U.S. as having a certain kind of eroticism, then I want to find poems that are metaphysical and abstract. When I read prefaces to other anthologies that say that women mostly write love poetry that’s overly sentimental and twee, and that men’s poetry is more important because it’s political, then I want to find some political poems by women. Whenever I make up my mind to look for something that I’ve read doesn’t exist, frankly, I’ve found it! That is very satisfying to my notions of feminism.

Overt feminist content often interests me in a poem, so while Adela Zamudio’s “Nacer Hombre” doesn’t make my snooty elitist filter, it is boldly feminist. It has also been an extremely famous poem for over 100 years. That alone gives it historical interest. And when I show it to people, they tend to respond with surprise and pleasure that such a poem was written at all in 1887:

Cuánto trabajo ella pasa
Por corregir la torpeza
De su esposo, y en la casa,
( Permitidme que me asombre).
Tan inepto como fatuo,
Sigue él siendo la cabeza,
Porque es hombre!

Actually, these sentiments were not so rare as people think. It is a sad symptom of the state of history, and of feminist history, that it should be so surprising.

I look for works that are representative of a particular kind of writing. Here’s a perfect example: Emma Vargas Flórez de Arguelles, born in 1885 in Colombia. I found a few of her poems in an old anthology of Colombian women poets. She never published a book, but had poetry in magazines and newspapers and was part of a family of poets. That’s all I know about her. If I could go to Colombia, or if I spent a week digging, I’m sure I’d find more about her life and more of her work. The poem I am including in the anthology is called “Manos femeniles.” It’s totally barfy. I’ll give you some of my English translation:

Professional hands that instead of a needle
take up the pen, driven by longing,
and instead of embroidery, shape verses;
you’re the busy secretaries of the soul,
that in happy times, peaceful, create
harmonious verses from honey and vinegar.

It gets worse. Lilies, mothers, children, Christ, butterflies, shy maidens, fragility, embroidery, stars, pearls, honor, and “holy obedience” all make cameo appearances and one is slightly tempted to think of the word “doggerel”. But then I think back to Longfellow and Tennyson, who are just as barfy and doggerel-prone and yet who are still judged to be “good” though out of fashion. If they were women they would disappear into the mists. How unfair! And Emma Vargas actually fits the stereotype of “women’s verses” that make people roll their eyes. Shouldn’t we actually take a long hard look at such poems before we judge them?

Indeed when I look deeper at “Manos femeniles”, it’s got something going on. I realize now, from reading a lot of poems like this, that there’s something similar to the U.S. women’s temperance movement going on; that Vargas is part of the feminism that thought of women as essentially holy and better than men; the famous “angel in the house”. The poem addresses famous men directly, challenging them to think of women poets as interpreters of a sort of fragile women’s dream-world, as if women are more directly in touch with the land of fantasy and imagination than men can be. In a modernist aesthetic, this is like saying that men can’t be good poets! They’re too sullied by gross impurity of the world and of just being men, apparently. Men sin a lot, and have battles and make a lot of noise. Women care for the wounded and for children, and are Christlike, while also sort of magically channelling poet-energy from the stars, from flowers, jewels, and from, you know… modernist fairyland. Then she winds up the poem with a rousing call to sisterly action:

Women of America, sisters of dreams,
for new songs, our hands together all
shall weave a laurel wreath,
and – united – we’ll add from our gardens
fresh violets, exotic jasmine,
leafy lilies, red carnation!

You have to admit that’s kind of cool! And while by my absolutist golden-bookshelf standards, I would sneer at it if it were written last year and read at a poetry slam, when I picture it in the context of its time, it’s interestingly radical.

This is ge
tting to be a very long post. I will continue tomorrow.

Accents, language, nationality

I enjoyed being in Montreal, surrounded by people speaking French. It was good to be in another country.

I could understand a few words and the gist of a sentence, but only after a 10-second time delay where I tried to spell words in my head. I can stumble through a French newspaper article, or follow a poem along with its translation into Spanish or English, but the same words spoken aloud – they often don’t compute!

My own voice sounded harsh and unlovely in my ears, flat and strident, after a day or so listening to French and Spanish. It was embarrassing evidence that I am an uncouth U.S. American. I might as well have been saying “Gee! Gosh! I guess so! W’all, I’ll be!” and slapping my knee while twiddling a strand of hay between my teeth, right off the set of “Hee Haw”. We have a lot of reasons right now to be embarrassed to be USians. Suddenly I could not escape being identified with a category I find distasteful… any personal or subcultural identities I have were subsumed into national identity, and into stereotype.

On the street and on the Metro I played guessing games – who was going to speak French? Was it possible to tell by how people dressed? I think there were correlations, but I didn’t have enough experience to guess right.

Strangers generally spoke to me in French, and I learned to say “bon jour” and “bon soir” but then there’d have to be a switch to English or shrugging. I wondered if people were reading me as French-speaking, or if it is standard in the Downtown and Village Gai areas to start off with French either because of the population there or for political reasons. Here, if someone speaks Spanish to me, it is either because they don’t speak English or because they have “read” my race incorrectly.

In the Metro I overheard a tour guide – in English – explaining to a group that the west side of one of the islands, the English-speaking side, just seceded from Montreal and is now its own city.

Impressions of poems; depth of meaning

My favorite readings from ALTA were translations of poems by Julio Martínez Mesanza and Luis Cernuda. Readers were often grouped by language or by country; I made an effort to go to the Spanish-language readings, especially if they were heavy on poetry and light on fiction.

Don Bogen translated Martínez Mesanza’s decasyllabic lines into blank verse, into deftly rolling yet dense & compact lines that lent dignity to the work. Listening with concentration and focus is difficult. Even if I achieve it, the words slip away from me and I’m left with only impressions. I need to see the poems on the page. Unfortunately I lost my notebook where I jotted down some of Bogen’s lines, but the originals are here:

Martinez Mensanza

His poems spoke of war: trenches, artillery, castles. knights, tapestries, goniometers; the language of war, of power and chaos, seemed doubly rooted in history and fantasy, catapulting the poem’s metaphors into philosophical musings applicable to anyone’s struggle in life.

I thought of the function of war, of battle, in poetry. Consider the symbolic and narrative value of combat in comic books or superhero stories. The battle is charged with meaning; the “action sequence” in a spy movie, in a western, when Wolverine fights his womanly arch-enemy and her razor claws, when Chow Yun-Fat and the gangster spray an endless hail of bullets around the church and he crawls blindly past his blind lover… Consider Arjuna’s struggle, his moment of choice and judgement before the Battle of Kurukshetra in the Mahabharata. Combat, ultimately, is about that razor edge of consciousness, about decision using all possible information and experience.

Es poder una torre sobre rocas had a powerful impact. Maybe because I had just been working on a long poem about towers, or The Tower, what we think “tower” means; fictional towers of all kinds, tarot cards, the tower of babel, the Two Towers; and the tower’s antidote, the rhizome. Something about the ephemeral quality of hearing, and my own bad memory, makes poetry hook unexpectedly into my own thought trains; on some level, I stop listening, I phase in and out of focus on the heard poem. This imperfection of understanding is productive. Later there is time enough to read the poem on the page and grasp it fully.

In fact, I don’t like a poem that is simple enough to grasp fully on one hearing. How dull, how disappointing, how very like a sound bite! For example, the poem by the Bulgarian poet, who was certainly a nice guy and a sensitive poet, and perhaps a translator himself. But the very poem that listeners in two audiences sighed over, in appreciation and perhaps in relief that it could be understood, I found to be one of the worst I heard all weekend. It was quite short, and had something like this: “God is a child/making sand castles/ and doesn’t understand/that he can control the waves…” I am a fan of the short poem as a form, but if it’s short, it had better have some good thick ideas jam-packed into it, especially if it’s one image and one metaphor. Songs don’t have to be that simple. A poem you can understand completely in one hearing is poor food for poet’s souls.

I forgot to talk about Cernuda, but I’ll do that in the next post.

Fired up about translation; Comparative Literature and translation

After the ALTA conference I’m all fired up about translation. In the next few days I’ll be writing up my notes from the panels, hallway conversations, lunch dates, and bilingual readings.

I bounced around the conference spreading lots of ideas. One thing I love about ALTA is that it’s not just for professional academics. Because it’s so hard to make a living being a literary translator in the U.S., everyone has a day job. There’s courtroom interpreters, surgeons, and high school foriegn-language teachers, heck, elementary school teachers. People’s jobs tend to be in teaching, publishing, editing, or – like me – housewifing. Those mavericks do great work, and they get a lot of respect from the academics, who also tend to be the red-headed stepchildren of their departments; foreign language, Comp Lit, English, Composition, Creative Writing – none of them are quite the right fit and your translation might not be quite respectable, might not count so much towards your tenure. Of course there are execptions, and some people are lucky enough to be in one of the rare universities with a Translation Studies program.

Comparative Literature is the logical home for translators in academia. It’s already cross-disciplinary. It’s theory-heavy right now, and could use a little course correction, a little practical connection with the world. Translation, at least of living languages and authors, maintains a direct connection with literary communities. Take a look at the book Comparative Literature in an Age of Multiculturalism. It’s a collection of short essays on Comp Lit, including a report on the state of the discipline from the 60s, 70s, and one from the 90s. (The 80s one is missing, because the Culture Wars were so intense.) If you look at the drafts of new American Comparative Literature Association essays available here: ACLA drafts that translation is being “noticed” more by Comp Lit. Maybe a shift in the discipline is happening, or should be happening. What does this mean for Comp Lit departments?

Comparative literature students and profs would benefit from learning more translation theory, and from doing translations. Translation theory and literary translators would benefit from thinking of their work as essentially comparative. What does that mean? As far as I understand it, it means keeping many factors in mind at the same time while doing your translation: your own subjectivity, the gaps in your knowledge, the depth or shallowness of your knowledge of other cultures and contexts. Seemingly unrelated areas of knowing can factor into a translation; though you’re translating an Argentinian short story from 1920, your knowledge of Icelandic history or the Tale of Genji, as a comparatist, is going to deepen the work. Putting translation into Comp Lit as a discipline would revitalize Comp Lit, and would acknowledge the way that translation is a creative, critical, literary, and political act.

Fear of disillusion; a point to poetry

I felt a moment’s temptation to try and go see Mary Oliver. But what if she’s a twit? It was rather upsetting when I went to hear Margaret Atwood, though we’re all ambivalent about her these days for being a snotwad about science fiction some of the time, I still have my admirations… and she was cool, but came off as oddly stuckup for someone who is so boasty about growing up in the backwoods.

Anyway I have this nightmare-universe vision suddenly of Oliver being so eastcoast and upperclass that I will want to scream no matter how much i like her poetry. It’s so unfair to say this; I know nothing about her!

Considering imitations. People who try to write like Oliver, they bother me more than people who try to write like Ginsberg. Why is that? Certain literary styles that are good in the original but when the emulators spring up, it makes it all seem cheap.

And I imitate her too including the yuppie moments of aetheticization and thoreau-like musing combined and the neat little wrap-up at the end. Sometimes I write that kind of poem and then I’m disgusted with myself. And then i know someone will publish it somewhere because it is easy to grok. It’s simple and digestible. And then I feel dirty, a lowdown rotten dirty liar, because my moment of aestheticizing nature is essentially false given the way I live, in an urban/suburban environment, so that it’s like this blinder-vision where I’m staring as if hypnotized at a tree or an acorn or a star, when all around me are streets and houses, bags of cheetos, paperclips, trashcans, dinner tables, people going to work. If I were actually living out in the woods like Thoreau it would seem more intellectually honest to write about the tree like it were the most important thing in my world. (Though I read all about how Thoreau’s mom or aunt or someone would come and clean his house and bring him his dinner so he could loll about the trails gazing at groundhogs — so he’s rather bogus himself.)

This is not at all a new thought for me; I became obsessed with it when I was about 16 and I set out to try to aestheticize everything and ended up with a lot of that sort of poetry that exalts paperclips and trashcans to positions of tawdry glory. At that age I was filled with a lot of wild determinations like, “I’m going to combine Art and Science in a way heretofore never seen in the history of the entire world!

And later I tried to feel a spiritual & poetic bond while musing on the nature of the artificial, the spirit of manufactured objects and mass production. I can get in that mode where an empty milk carton is a tragic miracle! The effort required to make it, its moldedness, its nearly severed connection with the things used to make it and with people. But central nature-y things come up, or one is just too conditioned to go around “feeling poetic” when the moon is up, or when gazing at the ocean with no pressure to go anywhere, and the moon and stars become poetic archetypes, part of a pantheon of symbology, and the trashcans, paperclips, urbanness, etc. are harder to internalize. And then one doubts completely whether the aestheticization of everything is a good idea at all! If we accept that poetic musing as part of the process of art or the point of art, then we’re lost to poltitical awareness.

So, back to the small precious illusions about other poets: Part of the reason I can believe in Marge Piercy’s poems is that I believe in the picture of her I have constructed, that she spends a lot of time in her garden, that she has a huge real-life commitment to composting her lettuce beds. I imagine her recycling everything, and wearing only all-cotton tunic-dresses made by non-sweatshop labor, and you know, the salty Cape Cod wind blowing in her hair. And it kinda ruins it when I imagine her going to K-mart and buying some socks, tampax, and a bag of cheetos and going home to eat the cheetos, grumpily pop some Midol, and watch Tivo-ed episode of “Cops” until she falls asleep in front of the TV, even though surely that or its Marge Piercy equivalent must happen. How unfair that my romantic myth of the poet should interfere with the poetry itself! And that the poetry should construct this unrealistic wind-blown portrait of the poet! Is that really necessary? I don’t think it’s right!

At poetry readings, part of what we like about them as poets — I’m thinking of Waverley Writers here, or some other small “page poet” readings around the Bay Area — is that we see evidence of other people who seem like regular cheeto-consuming people, confessing to those moments of tender aestheticization, of romanticizing some aspect of the world. And that makes them vulnerable, I think, and we mutually recognize the vulnerability of “being like that” and walking around in a sort of fog where we attach our attention to some object– or situation –and stuff all this meaning into it. We’re a little embarrassed. And yet we love it – and admire it when other people do it, no matter how it may seem to the rest of the world like pointless navel-gazing wankery.

Poetry readings and what they mean

When you read a book of poems, you know that someone else has likely read that book, so on one level you become a member of a community of people who have read it and developed a response to it. But you don’t have much awareness of that community. Your membership is not active or visible.

For an example of readerly membership, consider old-fashioned library cards. When I was in grade school, I’d check a book out by signing my name on a lined index card that was in the front of the book. The librarian would take the card and date stamp it. I could see on the card in the book a list of everyone else who had read the book before me. I could make myself known to them, and I’d be known as a reader of that book by anyone who read it after me or who had the impulse to look at the card. In this way I became aware of other kids who shared my reading tastes, my interests; as meta-information one level removed I became aware that two or three other kids in the school read as much and as widely as I did.

A poetry reading or spoken word event creates a visible literary community. The sharing of information is visible. You know who’s heard what you’ve heard. Even if you don’t say anything, by attending the event you become engaged in public discourse, or potentially engaged.

In blogging communities, the visibility of readership creates strong reading communities. For example, I feel a kinship of shared knowledge with someone who has been a regular commenter on a blog that we both read. I can see not only that they read it, and not only the tenor of their responses, but a glimpse of their level of engagement with the text. I may not know their own blog or their work, but I have a textual relationship with that fellow commenter.

Wanting a lot of people to come to your reading goes way beyond wanting to feel a diva-like popularity. When people come to a reading, their presence magnifies the importance of the event in each others’ eyes, because they personally become visible to a larger literary community. They have an opportunity to make connections with other listeners and to have conversations about the work. Events with only 6 people attending can be powerful too, if those 6 people respond strongly and put their information visibily into the mix. If they all go off and write reviews of the event, or poems in response to what they heard, or have a blog discussion the next day, then an event of literary importance has probably occurred.

In literature as it is treated in the literary-academic world, there are authors, readers/listeners, and critics. The categories overlap. It’s particularly powerful when we see their strong overlap, for example when poets write poetry about other poets’ poems, or when a novel has complex intertextual relationships. When this happens, we as readers realize we have a relationship to the text that is potentially creative and critical. In addition, the subjectivity of the critic is strongly exposed. We also as readers can now see something of the internal library, or the blogroll, the information feed, of the author. As a reader and critic, I want to know the information feed of whoever I’m reading.

I take notes at readings and think about what I’m hearing, about patterns and fashions in poetry. It’s difficult to write frankly about what’s good and bad in other people’s writing without being offensive or hurting people. I’m hoping I can strike a balance: focus on the positive without pulling my punches. I’d like to practice exercising judgement and drawing other people into critical thinking about poetry and translation.

Here’s a list of some of the readings and open mics that I have been going to over the last 5 years in the Bay Area:

Waverly Writers, in Palo Alto
Art 21, also in Palo Alto
Writers With Drinks, San Francisco
Kvetsh, San Francisco
Edinburgh Castle, San Francisco
The Saturday Poets, in Burlingame
San José Art League, in the Minor Street house around 2000-2002
Willow Glen Books, San José
Poetry Center San José
Redwood City Not Dead Yet Poets’ Society
Various reading at City Lights, Modern Times, Valencia St. Books, Chimera, Kepler’s, & other bookstores.

I hope I can expand this list and take a peek into other readings, other scenes that have their own particular thing going. I recently wrote an article for a book on the Waverley Poets on this specific subject: the academic/literary page poets and the spoken word poets don’t have a context for judging each others’ works, because they don’t know each others’ information feeds.

I’d like to get some of the people in different scenes around the Bay Area reading or listening to each other, and looking for each others’ ways of being intertextual and literary.

Textual and imaginary worlds

I think of books and literature as texts, as information. Texts interconnect with other texts and exist as parts of dynamic systems of reading, interpretation, rewriting, and references. People have relationships with each other, and with objects, and I would argue that their relationships with literary texts fall somewhere in between, because texts carry more complexity than, say, a car or a hammer.

The judgement of literary quality has something to learn from the web’s management and judgement of textual information. Context is important. Who is reading is important. Relevence to a specific need, query, person, or community is important.

Bookmania reviews, Dec. 1996

Six Records of a Floating Life, Shen Fu

A slacker from long ago….

Chinese poetry

Damn it, what was that book called… ugh! A cool book of literary criticism type rambling about Chinese poetry. Cool stuff about a poem’s “chi”.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John Le Carre

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, John Le Carre (rr)

A Small Town in Germany, John Le Carre

The Book of Mars, NASA, circa 1960

Not a book to read all the way through, but the section on the possibility of life on Mars, and contamination of the Earth by virulent Martian plagues, was rich. It’s nice to know our government has some imagination…